Udee Bassey | Public Health Evaluator + Artist

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Hi friends, welcome to episode two of the Who Made You Great podcast, where we talk to people who are great at what they do about who helped get them there because none of us does this alone. This episode is the Super Soul Sunday you need, but in Who Made You Great podcast form. It is the warm hug after a long day. It is the cup filling conversation you need in these current times. And I’m really elated to be bringing it to you.

As I record this introduction, it is a rainy day. It is a day that I spent mostly under the covers, which I needed. It’s been, uh, you know, a heavy time. I don’t think much more on that has to be said. So it was really wonderful listening to this episode again as I put it together for today’s show because it was exactly what i needed and i hope it’s what you need too.

Today, I’m going to ask you to take one action and that is to subscribe to the show, wherever you’re listening. When you subscribe to the show, it helps get the podcast in front of more people who would otherwise not find it. So I really appreciate that small action for the podcast today. Let’s get into it.

Today, I am here with Udee Bassey, my dear friend. We have known each other 14? 15 years? Long time. I’m very excited to have her here. One of the reasons I wanted to invite Udee on to the show and have her be an early guest is because we’ve been able to walk alongside each other in our paths of greatness for so long. We have been able to be mirrors for each other and checks on each other and sounding boards for each other and like many true long-term friendships. There will be periods of time where we don’t speak for a long time, but then we pick back up and I feel very seen and Udee’s presence, and I hope I can provide the same for her.

One of the reasons I feel Udee is great – I’ve mentioned to this to her before is because she approaches life with a tender ferocity. She is a woman of so many talents. She wears a lot of hats. She has existed in a lot of spaces. You’ll hear more about her background and all of the different places that she’s been able to, very gracefully, and she might challenge me on that one, but very gracefully weave in between, between worlds of different countries and languages and academic spaces and creative spaces. And she exists as herself in each of those spaces and it’s a really wonderful thing to see. So without much further ado, Udee, welcome to the show.

Thank you. It’s an understatement to say this is an honor. We were chatting earlier. There is no other person I would have wanted to do this with, so thank you for sliding in my DMs to say, “You know this was coming.” I was like, “No, I didn’t!” Because I was, I was prepared to like, be an observer and to witness the resurgence of this project and then to see it take on, I was happy to witness that, but thank you for, including me.

I’m so glad that you’re here.

So, we’re going to get into the first half of the show, which is the, who are you portion of the show? I would love for you to tell our audience a little bit – a lotta bit – honestly. We’re going to dive right in because you have such a cool background – about yourself and we can start with the easier part on paper of the, where you’re from, where your people are from, the places that you’ve lived, your professional and personal and passion project backgrounds.

I was born in Lisbon Portugal, a country that I lived in for all of six weeks before getting whisked off. Both my parents are diplomats and so I’ve lived in several different countries for four or five years, six year chunks at a time. Global citizen with one passport. So that is Nigerian. So let’s see if we can work backwards. so I had moved to the US from Germany. My parents were living in Berlin at the time, and I was there for a few years before coming to the US for school, went to the good old University of Miami, and that’s where we met.

Which is an interesting time for me because my family had moved around a lot as a unit, I had never really experienced what homesickness was or like feeling, missing your social support. I kind of plowed through those four years and realized only in hindsight that there were distinct moments where I wish I had had more support than I did. But then it’s like, as God would have it, these kernels of people just kind of entered my life.

So for awhile, I thought I would follow after my parents’ footsteps of being a diplomat. It was part of who I was. We had lived in several different countries and so international relations came naturally to me in that way, but you want to your own path in life so for a little while, yeah, I was undecided on what to do. my father suggested that I go by back to Nigeria for a little while and kind of recalibrate, which was amazing.

This was 2009, 10 11. And that was when that global crisis hit. And so it was a good time to go back home. I had a couple of mentors who talked about public health being an option. And I thought this is interesting.

It kind of marries the science part of me, but then also this international framework, this care for community, I’ll just say – care for people. After having sat in one public health class in my international studies major, I thought to myself, this resonates and so went back home for a little over a year. Did my nati – my National Youth Service Corps, which is kind of the equivalent of a teach for America or AmeriCorps, peace Corps, all that kind of stuff wrapped into it.

I worked an international NGO that did public health system strengthening. And so I got a real taste for public health work and doing global health work on the grass roots level. Applied to come back to do my Master’s in Public Health. went to Emory and I’ve been in Atlanta ever since I love the city. I thought for a while, I was going to leave and maybe go to DC or somewhere, but I still have work to do in Atlanta. So here I am.

I’d love for you to get into a bit of the work that you’re doing in Atlanta cause the part that you haven’t dived into at all is this whole art side. And you are deep in that world. And it would be, I think, funny for someone in the audience here, like, “Oh, okay. Public health. Yeah. She’s a hardcore, public health nerd,” but it’s like, and art and creative direction and spoken word and all this other stuff. So tell us a bit about that side of your life.

Yeah, I’m a researcher at heart, and I think I’m a researcher at heart because I’m just so curious and if given the right space, which I know now I can create for myself as opposed to waiting to be brought along and to have a space provided for, I’m always asking questions.

I’ve been a writer for a long time. Yeah. Writing has been in my therapy for a long time. Cause I was just a precocious, highly sensitive as I’m now discovering, young woman. Who, you know, in your traditional African households, there, isn’t a whole lot of space to ask a lot of questions. These are the rules, and this is how you play the game.

But I just, I had so many questions and so many things confused me. I’m less confused now, thankfully, but you know, 35 years, so that’s always been in the background of everything and I’ve always wanted to be able in my life to marry the things that I love and create something from that. In comes, the researcher, incomes, international stuff, incomes the biology, the science, but then, you know, I didn’t have that space.

In college that was such an awesome role that I had where I was allowed to invite poets to campus, to perform. That was such a cool experience for me because I would spend hours, hours, hours, hours on YouTube. I think I’ve watched just about every Def Poetry Jam video there is out there.

I mean part of my time when I was in grad school was trying to figure out whether there was a way for me to still continue to do that. I didn’t find a nice clean way to do it. But art is still very much a big reason for how I function.

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So there’s always been writing and a little bit more recently, I’ve taken up photography. It’s all of these pieces that I’m trying to just pull into my experience to make part of this tapestry of who I am without feeling like I need to diminish any part of that in order to fit anywhere.

I mean, these days, it’s all about bringing your own table, right? Where there’s no space for you at the table to bring your own damn table and invite people there. So creativity has definitely been that avenue.

It’s really cool to hear you describe it in this way, because we’ve had conversations about how the public health side and the creativity side inform one another but I think this is the first time that I’m seeing that the basis for both for you really is that curiosity. Because the thing to point out for our audiences, you have not yet, once name-dropped all of the important spaces that you exist in and the important spaces in which you are doing public health and doing art and I think most people would have come with like, “I work for so and so, and I volunteer at so-and-so,” and because you’re driven by curiosity, that’s not the important part for both. You’re driven by curiosity and that is what has led you to these important spaces where you are doing important work, but not for clout chasing, not for the accolade. Like that stuff is important, yes, to leave our legacy and impact on the world. But for you, it sounds like your legacy and impact is more driven by curiosity and being able to dig and using both spheres to dig into how people are and why they act the way they do, and why they interact the way they do, and how they think is that a thread for you?

My dad definitely dispelled some of that hero worship, if you want to call it that for lack of a better term, because he, I mean, talk about a great person. Like both my parents, for sure, but just using my dad as an example, if there were a physical example of someone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, it would be my father. When you start from essentially nothing. He lost his parents very early and taught himself English.

This is a man who, his parents gave him one name and he decided that’s not good enough for me – his name used to be something that meant sorrow or sadness and he decided “actually, I don’t want that to be my name.” He renamed himself and gave himself the name Sunday, the Lord’s day. If there were ever an example of someone who says, “you can do it on your own, if you really want to.” It’s him.

He’s worked in prestigious places, but there has always been a strong core. And so he’s definitely instilled in his litter of children, that strong core. If you sort of are centered in yourself in that way, that will lead you to these extraordinary places. And the more that you sort of you trust God, of course, but you trust yourself, you’ll realize that these are all stepping stones to something else.

Right now I am sort of learning the philosophies of non-attachment to non-judgment and non-resistance. And so there’s a lot of this.

It’s like, you attach yourself too much to the clout, the clout will fail because there’s nothing holding it down. What’s the foundation there, right? The foundation is you. And if that’s strong, if that’s, if you’re present in yourself – no one’s asking you to have all the answers. But if you, if there’s a, there’s a part of you that really, this is who I am, then it will lead you to some amazing places, and some amazing experiences that for you, it’ll just be another example of the way that God works.

And, you know, it’s just another way of showing you how awesome God can be and how beautiful life can be. So it becomes less about the names and more about the experience of being there and being part of that, whatever it is – that organization that cause, right. But you’re always still yourself. You leave every place the way you came, which is yourself.

He definitely instilled that at an early age and as I get older, I get to build on those kinds of, that philosophy. I’m going to be real spiritual here. I hope that’s okay. But like the Bible says surely goodness and mercy, right? Like will follow me all the days of my life. So it’s, it’s almost like a given, right? It’s you, you keep on this path and it’s like, surely these things will come your way as, and, but you don’t, you don’t end your, your journey because something awesome is happening. You keep going forward because the world is infinite. And it’s here for us to experience that infiniteness.

I want to talk more about this sense of core, because you are someone who has always strongly been yourself, but allowed that self to morph and change and be impacted. And I think the phrase, a lot of people use in situations like this is, “Oh, this person works harder on themselves than anything else.” But I don’t think that phrasing applies here for good reason because you don’t seem to approach it as though it’s hard work, it’s joyous work. It’s sometimes heartbreaking work, but with such a gift at the end of it, and you approach it with that same spirit of curiosity and what will be this new thing I find, and maybe I have to go through a little bit of a heartbreaking tunnel right now and burrow and dig. But the reward on the other side of that can be great because it is me further discovering who I am at my core, and that’s a payoff. I’d love to hear a bit about why that work has been something that you see as necessary and worthy.

I’ll start off with a strong core idea. I’ve never been particularly a rigid person. And I think that has served me well. I think growing up in a couple, in several different countries has definitely contributed to that because I grew up attending international schools, American international schools.

And so you’re thrust in an environment – no one looks like you quite literally, no one looks like you. I mean, granted for a while, my family was the only black African family in the entire school so elementary, middle, and high school. But even then, everybody was from somewhere. Everyone had a story. Everybody had grown up somewhere. it was not strange to meet a kid who grew up in one place and lived somewhere else and has a passport from somewhere else.

You learn to look at life through a lot of other people’s different, different eyes, different perspectives. I let those experiences pass through me and I think it’s been, that’s how I’ve always approached life. I let these experiences pass through me. I let them inform me, without breaking me.

And I think the breaking always comes when we hold so strongly to the fabric of who we think we are, that we don’t let life change us. But the thing is life can be so gracious if you let it, if you let it life can be very gracious and very giving.

So it’s definitely a strong core, but it’s also a – nothing is guaranteed. Literally all the things that, you know, planned for can literally fall apart through no fault of your own. So then what happens, right? Who are you then after everything has gone up into the air? so I think I’ve, I’ve always gone with a little bit of flexibility and I think that’s definitely served me.

And I’m, I’m grateful for that it’s allowed me to have very interesting experiences that I otherwise would not have had. And I just know that there’s so much more coming and so I can now look at that with a lot more enthusiasm.

Having recently celebrated a birthday and birthdays just always being contemplative times, what do you feel like at this point in your life are your core values?

I think it’s that I can be period. That I can, I can be, and I can choose and I have agency and I can co-create my own reality and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s that I can exist and not feel the need to explain myself that I can, I can grow up with one way of thinking and toss that out if it literally does not serve me. But yeah, when I turned 35, I was just like, you know what? We’re going to, we’re going to start doing things my way this time.

In the second half of the show, I ask our guests, “who made you great.” And I have a rule. The guest is only supposed to talk about one person and Udee blatantly broke, my rules, as she is wont to do. But in a really lovely way, she spoke about all of the people who have impacted her life in small, but in really meaningful ways, everyone from a teacher who just said a kind thing, to the people that you meet in the grocery store who offer a bit of compassion.

And it’s so true – these people really impact us in many people over the course of our lives, build us into who we are. But one of the things I really love about this show, is that as a person talks about a lot of different people, there’s gratitude in their voice, but there’s always that moment when they start talking about the person or the people who really touched their heart, their voice changes. The love starts coming through. And it’s a completely different tone. So I’m going to exercise my right to curate a bit.

While Udee talked about a lot of people who impacted her, her voice changed when she spoke about a very specific set of people. And I’m very excited for you to hear who I think really made Udee great.

What are your siblings names?

Okay, so let’s go in order – there’s me. There’s Innih who lives in Nigeria. There’s Coco, who lives in New York. There’s Kuyeek, who lives in LA. And there’s Abasiofon, who lives in Atlanta.

Did you always get along with all of your siblings? I know people go through like different lives with their siblings.

Oh yeah. I definitely have gone through different lives with my siblings. I think we definitely get along now in a way that is just, it’s so beautiful. The relationship we have now. I don’t think our parents realize how often we talk in the day. Every passing second, someone is saying something it’s beautiful, but I’m no, I mean, we definitely had our growing pains as siblings. Memories are coming back to me now of like fights we’d have. It was needed because now we can look back and see why those issues had to happen, the way that they did and how you now become a better person for lack of a better word.

The reason I asked is because, from the outside looking in I’m, I’m so lucky to know most of your siblings and it seems as though you’ve each been able to get to a place where you do allow each other to just be. You all have such amazing gifts and very different spaces. You all go hard in the space that you’re in and with a lot of fun and fervor and truly disciplined hard work, each of you. But it seems as though you’re really able to support each other in each of those things. Is that what you feel?

Oh, definitely. And support each other when nobody else really had the answer and support. Because I mean, we all came here as, I don’t even know whether you’d call us first-generation cause my parents didn’t really like relocate here per se.

But when we all didn’t know what it was to live and what is this American dream, you know, like what is all of this yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s been that. And also just knowing that everybody has their own space, their own thing, allowing that to be. That hasn’t, that definitely has not been without its own growing pains as well.

I mean, my sister who lives in New York runs a highly successful brand. Seeing her start that has been incredible because it’s an unconventional thing, right? It’s, it’s a new, you know, the brand space, the blogger space, the influencer space is new, especially when she was starting out, having to learn how to work a camera that I only ever used as a hobby.

But, you know, just being like, well, if this is what you want to do, then you’ll figure it out. You’re smart enough, and it really is just a, I think it’s, it’s really coming from a place of compassion and knowing that no one has the answers and knowing that – go, go as hard and as far as you can, and if you figure out that doesn’t work anymore, you can do something else. Like you have other things you can fall back on. You have – you know, you can, you can do something else, cause she’s like the first person to do the unconventional thing of not getting a traditional, of leaving a highly. And she was doing well at that job too. Like she was earning very well. Leaving that all aside, moving to New York and, and thriving off her own thing that she created by herself, like being her own boss. it was definitely scary to watch her do that because it’s, it’s unconventional.

But then always saying to her, listen, have as much fun as you can, once it stops being fun, you can do something else. And, and that being the mantra for everyone, right. As an older sibling, kind of holding, holding that space for my siblings to say, “I support you no matter what you choose to do.” And not just like, I support you, but like genuinely, I support you. This is a resource that I have, you know, I’ve come across, see if it works for you. Right. And always being like, if it stops being fun, stop doing it. Why do things that are not fun?

So it has been incredible to each and every one of them. I sort of pick Coco as the example because she sort of, sort of went off and did her thing quite, you know, before us all, she’s blazed several trails within this family as well.

My youngest brother too, like, this is someone who, he’s so multitalented, and so just – both of my brothers to be fair, just so multitalented. All my siblings, we’re so amazing. I mean, but to see each of them find their own thing.

Like Kuyeek has such a, such a business mind such a – I look up to Kuyeek because she’s just, she’s just cut and dry. Like she, she is who I wish I could have been like much more bold, much more like “this is, this is okay, this is not okay.” Like, much less forgiving. I’ve had to like, learn that over the years, but to kind of see them all in their own lane and doing their own thing and really, really enjoying what they do, it gives me so much more inspiration that, so long as I can continue to find the fun in what I do, I can, I can, I can explore.

Would you describe your parents as particularly traditional?

Oh I would, oh, for sure, and funny too. And that’s the paradox about them because for people who have lived literally all over the world. Have interfaced with all kinds of different governments, again, that that core value I think is where that traditional piece comes from. Yeah, my parents are quite traditional.

How do they feel about all of the different directions in which their kids have flown?

I like to take credit for that a little bit, because I have been the one to say many times. It’s okay. She’ll figure it out. I have definitely been the one to, been on the phone with them, like, and they they’re just going off. I don’t understand why she’s making this decision. Tell him to do this, tell her to do that, or make sure you – I’m just like, I hear you, but I, I think they’re going to figure it out.

And to have been that buffer between, you know, the modernity of the, of the new generation and sort of the tradition of the older generation and kind of been like, you know, I understand that this is important to you, but you got to let these kids do their thing. You have to let them, because you’re not going to enjoy your children. If, if they literally do everything you tell them to do, you’re going to look at them one day and be like, so what else can, what else do you have to offer? Right.

So I will like to take credit for them being able to see all this, the way that they see I’m going to do that because I worked hard to, to be that person for my family, right. To hold that space. Cause, you know, my parents are very traditional and very strict and very Christian. And so that comes with its own several layers. it’s been a journey for us all honestly.

It’s always interesting to watch parents who, who do have that like real core traditional thing who also raised kids in multiple countries, like. It’s kind of on them that y’all went...

I really am like you guys, it’s your fault that we act this way. If you had wanted children who will, for lack of a better like who will be the doctor and the, then the lawyer and the, you know, to be the straight and narrow, get married by 20 something, have kids by 27. You know, if you had wanted that, then you should not have carried us on a plane. Since a lot of us were born around the world. Like you, you can’t expose people to, to the infiniteness of what life can offer and then expect them to be narrow. You know, so it’s on you.

Also, y’all have done both because there is an abundance of higher education degrees in your family. There’s a lot of them, and you’ve all still gone on to do all of these extra, more modern things as well. And so it’s just, it’s entertaining to watch a family that could have been very traditional with the parental units, do – excel with that and Excel with all of these different things that you chase as well. It’s cool.

I will say, it’s the immigrant story, the immigrant story in many ways. I mean, when you choose, when you opt in to live away from, from your people, you sort of sign up inherently to do the things that no one else considered as an option. Um, so it was, this was inevitable. It was inevitable.

So for someone who is just starting on their personal journey of greatness. But on a personal journey of, trying to figure out who they are in the world, trying to figure out who that person is when they allow themselves to just be, what is some advice that you would offer them for that journey?

First of all. Welcome. Welcome. If you can remain yourself as much as possible, I think that’s the greatest gift you can give yourself because, it becomes harder when you decide to be disingenuous and you go through experiences in life, because it’s almost like who was that person that was experiencing? I mean, we all have those moments of – what did, what did I just do? Who was that? You know, we all have that, but if you, if you can remain in your authenticity as much as possible, then you can live with yourself, right? You can sleep at night. You can say, listen, I botched that thing to no end, but at the very least I did it because at that moment I thought that that was the right thing for me to do. I’ve always also trusted that the thing that I need to know at the moment that I need to know it will come.

Amen. Closing thoughts?

Hmm. Ooh, don’t stop asking the questions that you’ve always wanted to ask. Don’t don’t stop asking the questions, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if they put certain big people or important people on the spot don’t stop asking those questions because it’s those questions that lead to the kind of innovations we need in the world. It’s those questions that lead to the kind of new philosophies and understandings.

Yeah, you can read all the great books you can read, but someone wrote them. Someone wrote them because someone asked the question and didn’t stop asking. And if that person is you, cause you never really know, ask the question and keep asking, even if you never get a response, keep asking. Cause sometimes, and the reason why I love the oneness of the world is that sometimes in you asking the question, someone else can carry that question and get the answer.

I like that you looped it back around to our original point of curiosity by saying, ask questions. Thank you for that’s a very good storyteller.

I thought I was just going to meander into the ether.

It comes back around. You’re a professional. I see it. Thank you.

Thank you, Lala. This was awesome.

Thank you for listening to another episode of Who Made You Great.

You can find the full transcripts for this and all other shows at whomadeyougreat.com. You can find us on Instagram at @whomadeyougreat. Please be sure to subscribe wherever you’re listening.

Thank you again to Udee Bassey for her heart in this episode; it was so wonderful. And thank you to Lionel T Djaowe for my music, which I still love.

And thank you to you, dear listener for all of your time today, for everything that I know you’re giving to this show too. I really appreciate you. Bye.

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